tv Conversation With David Ritz CSPAN July 4, 2015 1:15pm-2:01pm EDT
become an incredible ally and it's really, you know, not just proud of me as her niece, but feels that this is an incredibly important part of history, you know, honors my effort to uncover what i've managed to uncover. >> host: the book is called "a guest at the shooter's banquet: my grandfather's ss past and my jewish family a search for the truth." it comes out in the fall of 2015 published by bloomsbury. rita gabis is the author. >> you're watching booktv. television for serious readers. you can watch any program you see here online at booktv.org. >> host: david ritz, what do you do for a living? >> guest: i am a ghost writer. >> host: what is a ghost writer?
>> guest: a ghost writer is an author who writes in the first person of another person. >> host: how'd you get into that business? >> guest: it's a long story. the short end of the story is i was an advertising guy after college and after graduate school, and i made up my mind i was going to go meet ray charles and talk him into letting me do an authorized biography of him, because i wanted to win the pulitzer prize and the nobel prize, and i didn't know anything about ghost writing. so i had a hard time introducing myself to him and sort of getting to him. but anyway, i was able to do it through my tenacity.
and when i did this agency had met told me, you know, you want to do his autobiography. and i said, no, i don't. and he said, yeah, you do. i said well, you know, i don't know how to do that. i don't know what a ghost writer does. and he, and he said, well, you'll earn a lot more money if you do can if you do a ghost written book because there's a much larger market for a ray charles book in his voice than there is for a biography of ray and i said i still don't want to do it. i want to do a biography under my own name. and then my agent asked me a question that really kind of changed my life, and the question was which book would you prefer to actually read, a book written by an egghead like you about ray charles or a book about ray charles written in
ray's voice? and i told him, oh, i would much prefer to read the book written in ray's voice, and he said, then you should write the book you want to read. not the one that you believe you should write. so that kind of changed everything. and then when i got with ray and i discovered there was a kind of musicality in his voice because, you know as you know we learn to speak before we learn to sing. and then it occurred to me, well, if there's a musicality in his voice and when i kind of create his voice on the page -- in other words, when i pretend i'm him when the i of me becomes the i of him, then i'll be sort of making music. and there isn't anything i would rather do than make music. and then in doing ray's voice i
discovered i had a gift for it. and i'm not sure what the gift is but it's something about the approximation of a voice. as you know, if you just do a transcription -- in other words, you know the words i'm telling you now, if they're just kind of transcribed and you kind of read the transcription in the context of a book -- that is not a good representation of my voice. because, you know, one thing i learned early on is that the eye hears much differently than the ear. so when you try i to create a literary voice it's an artistic act. it's an act of artifice. you are creating the impression that this person talking to you is talking to you in a
conversational way. so in order to do that, you have to move from the literal transcription to a kind of a sculpting, a kind of i don't know exactly what to call it, but you're sort of giving a person a literary voice. and that, as i said, is art. it's not a clerical function as i, before i began to do it, presumed it was. >> host: did you have any connection to ray charles? did you have any connection to writing? >> guest: yeah. i had written in high school and college, and i had written advertising, and i had written academic essays, and i had written journalism. i had done a lot of writing. so, i mean, i've i was comfortable with the act but not this act of being a ghost can. that was entirely -- ghost.
that was entirely new. and, you know, i went to college and majored in english i went to graduate school, i got an m.a. in english, but all that collegiate training didn't prepare me for being a ghost writer. i had never contemplated, i'd never taken a course in it. the only two books i really had in my consciousness was one was the autobiography of billie holliday "lady sings the blues," which i loved as a young boy, and i knew that that was written by a ghost writer because i remember i read the book when i was about 12 or 13, and it had on the cover "as told to william duffy." and i remember asking my father who is this guy? and my father said, well, he's probably the guy who actually wrote the book. and i told him no, no, no, the
book was written by billie holliday because it's all in her voice, and she's talking to you. and i remember my father told me well that's what he sort of does for her. he's giving you the idea that she's actually writing the book. and then i remember asking does he get to go over to billie holliday's house? and my father said i presume he does. and then i remember i said, that's the job i want. and that's the job i have. >> host: so when we look at some of the books that you've ghost written, it's a long story, my life, willie nelson -- >> guest: right. that's just about to hit stores. >> host: -- with david ritz. >> guest: there i am on the cover. [laughter] at the bottom. >> host: did you appear on the cover of the ray charles -- >> guest: yeah. no, no i've always appeared, i think, on every book other than one. my name's always appeared on the cover. and, do you know, in the beginning when i began out and i
did ray charles' book, i did a number of -- it was important for me that it, that, you know, my name was a certain size because i still hadn't gotten over this idea that ghost writers are looked at as something of a subcategory. and, but it took me a long time just to be comfortable with that. >> host: another book -- >> guest: yeah. >> host: -- with just your name on it. >> guest: yeah. that's a whole different story and that's the only time this has ever happened to me. in 1995 i met aretha franklin after chasing her for years. i had done this book with ray charles, and the next book i wanted to do was iowa aretha, because i loved her as -- i loved her music as passionately as i loved
the music of ray charles. and she wasn't interested. so typical of me, i will kind of chase after artists and i will mail them postcards and call them until i can get a meeting and hopefully charm them into hiring me. and in aretha's case, i did. and in the mid 1950s. in the mid 1990s, she hired me to ghost write her autobiography. but this was an instance where i can't -- and it's the only instance where i didn't deliver the kind of book that i really wanted to. i had a hard time sort of gaining any emotional intimacy with her. and i didn't get her to reveal very much about her inner life. and so the book came out i wasn't happy with the book. so i took about 14 years and continued my research on her. and in october of 2014, i put
out my own biography of aretha that i call, i call "respect," because i didn't feel i had honored her art or the complexities of her story enough in doing her autobiography. but i don't expect to do that again anytime soon. in other words the books that i've done on ray charles or b.b. king or smoky robinson or marvin gaye are i am pleased with. i don't mean they're perfect books, but i feel as no though from an historical point of view if you want to get to know these people and hear them talking to you and hear them telling you their stories then the books i've done with them are accurate and good and filled with funk and soul and heart.
but in the case of aretha, i just didn't feel that way, and i just felt as though i owed it to her and to history to do my own version. >> host: david ritz, when you make an arrangement such as with willie nelson or smoky robinson -- >> guest: yeah yeah. >> host: -- first of all, is there a nondisclosure agreement? do you, can you be censored by the main author, by willie nelson? >> guest: yes, yeah. and i'm extremely glad you asked me that because that's one of the most interesting things about my work. i give away all control. i have no control. and i remember once peter i was at a conferences in austin on -- conference in austin on a panel of biographers and this biographer attacked me and said ritz shouldn't even be here because he's a ghost writer, and that's not a biographer. and one of the reasons i can't trust his books is because he
has no editorial control over the content. and i had to agree with him. now, i didn't agree with him that i shouldn't be on the panel, and i had to point out to him that who -- that the holy bible is a ghost written book, and we don't know who the author of that is other than the holy ghost, and there are other excellent ghost written books the autobiography of malcolm x by alex haley is looked at as a classic. but going back to the point of control, one of the points i made was that when you give control away when it it isn't an issue, you get more control because control isn't on the table as a point of contention. there isn't any -- so that the star, knowing that he or she has the ultimate editorial content
and control over content -- can relax, and you're able to gain more intimacy that way. and usually at the end of the process i've gained enough of the trust of the star that i can pretty much control the content of the book. now, you know, there are times when they don't want this in there, or they don't want that in there. but i'm, generally i kind of think our biggest addiction of all is control. and anytime i can give away control, i'm a happier person, and i think i work with greater integrity and greater empathy. because what ghost writing is really all about is empathy and compassion. because in order to get people the open up their hearts and tell you what's happened in their lives their conflicts, they have to feel as though you
are not judging them and that you love them, on a certain level. and so when, if i've done well -- and i think i have -- it's because i've been able to open up my heart with the people that i've worked with and established this kind of intimate rapport. because, you know, in a certain way i'm a surrogate for the person who reads the book. i'm a surrogate for the reader. many many many people would like to be in my position and get to hang out with ray charles or willie nelson for, you know days and weeks at a time and hang out at the kitchen table and hear 'em tell stories. so i'm there just not for me, but for, you know all those untold numbers of people who want to gain access to these
people. >> host: is it profitable? >> guest: it is. i mean, one of the other challenges -- i mean, you know, it's interesting, i was just at a conference over the weekend music conference in seattle and a person asked me what do you think the purpose of a what did she ask? oh, what is your purpose as a writer? and i said i have two. one is to avoid a nervous breakdown, and the other one is to sort of make a living. and the two tie together because if you have a nervous breakdown, you can't make a living. and if you're making a living you can't have a nervous breakdown. so for me as a freelance writer for the last 40 some years it's
been really important to make a living and not go nuts. and ghost writing has been a great way for me to keep my head above water from a financial point of view. and, because there's a built-in market for stars. they have an audience. and also they come to you with a story. so now, you know, i have written biographies and novels and essays. i mean i've written lots of stuff, but i go -- i keep my concentration on ghost writing because it's where art and commerce sort of meet for me --
sort of neat for me. i'm a commercial writer at heart i learned to write at an advertising agency i learned to write and ad copy. once a copy wisconsiner -- copy righter, you know i gave up advertising because it became too easy and hacknied, and the creative challenge was go. i've been ghost writing now for maybe 41 years and i'm still challenged because it's hard. and you don't ever sort of get it right. and the idea were you to ask me to ghost write your book, you know i'd have to get to know you, i'd have to, i'd have to
try to enter into your heart, in your head and get a good kind of feeling for how you use words and how you tell stories. and, you know, i might pull it off, or i might not pull it off. and then even beyond the sort of mechanics of -- there's also will i be a good enough psychologist to get you to open up and will i ask you to -- the write questions? will i give you enough space which i haven't been able to do in this interview, because i've been sort of talking the whole time. >> host: what if you agreed to write that book and i said i don't want your name on it? >> guest: that'd be hard. that actually has happened to me a couple of times. now, it's interesting you ask me that because i think i would like to be a person who could answer you and tell you i wouldn't care. i think that would be a more
chilled out version of me. however, my ego -- now ego, i mean one of the reasons i'm happy to be a ghost writer is because i think had i sort of made it big as a non-ghost writer, as a david ball dash chi or stephen king or james joyce i would be in corrigible. i would -- my megalo mania would go nuts, and you wouldn't be able to talk to me. i'd be just like -- and but because ghost writing -- in order to be a ghost writer a good ghost writer and get lots of gigs, you have to deal with your ego. you have to submerge and suppress and tend to the hunger of your ego. it just can't have what it
wants, because what it wants is what i told you in the original story, it wants to win the nobel prize, the the pulitzer prize and that isn't going to happen in an autobiography. it's just not. so i thank god for that. i thank god that being a ghost writer because i wanted to earn money and get more gigs i've trained myself to tend to the sort of gnawing demands of my ego. so i'm sort of relatively can chilled out in that area. but not completely. so to go back to your question, if you said to me do my book but i don't want your name on it, my
answer to you might be, well good. but give me another $80,000 to keep off my name. >> host: do you get a set fee or is it based on -- >> guest: everything. no, no no, every week is a different -- every book is a different sort of negotiation. there are no rules. you know, you have an agent. your agent usually negotiates with the star's manager. but every book is every book is different. >> host: somebody else you've written with is tavis smiley. >> guest: yeah i love tavis. >> host: how'd you get to know tavis? you've written a couple of books with him. >> guest: yeah, this is number three, working on number four. how did i meet -- oh, yeah. the publisher of doubleday at time a man named steve rubin, had tavis under contract for an
autobiography. and i had just written a book for steve about a big mogul in the music business. he was president of columbia records during the michael jackson days. in any event, rubin thought that tavis and i would be a good combination, so he put us together, and i wrote with tavis his autobiography. and then last year he and i did a book together about martin luther king jr., last year in his life. and recently we've worked together on this book on maya angelou about his relationship to maya angelou. but tavis is sort of the ideal collaborator because he
appreciates what i do, you know, and shows me great respect. and also i love how he speaks and i love his voice and he's intrinsically a good storyteller. so it's, it's been a great combination. >> host: is the ghost writing business a pretty big business that we don't necessarily know about? >> guest: yeah. the one area we haven't talked about is deep ghosts which means that you don't have your name on it. you touched upon it earlier. but a deep ghost is a person who has ghost written a book for typically politicians will use a deep ghost because they want to give the idea that they actually wrote the book. and i don't know i haven't done a survey on it, but i think -- i don't know whether a majority of books written by politicians are ghost written, but a large
number of books written by politicians are ghost written. so yeah, it's it's -- and i i'll tell you one interesting story about that. i was once on an airplane going to a conference, and i was next to a guy who's a well known novelist who i won't name because i don't want to hurt his feelings. and he asked me what i did for a living and i told him. he said, well, that's interesting. and then i -- he asked me what, which books i had done and i told him. and he said the only problem i have with that, he said, is that i don't have a lot of respect for a person who wants to write his life story and does not do it by himself. and i turned to him and i said, why? you can have a great story but not have the chops to be able to
tell it. and just because you don't have the chops to write it doesn't mean that the world shouldn't enjoy it. i mean, you know, not everybody knows how to write a 400-page book cohesively and authentically. i mean, it's hard to do it. and so i think, i think there will always be a need for ghost writers. and i'm glad, because there will always be people with compelling stories to tell who just don't have the training to do it. so it's, it's -- i hope to do it until i can't do can it anymore. do it anymore. >> host: david ritz, what's your connection to marvin gaye?
>> guest: well, i loved him a lot. and he was another guy i chased after because i wanted to do his autobiography. and i just adored him. and had been listening to him ever since i was a kid. and in 1979 he put out -- 1978 he put out an album called "hear my gear" which was an autobiographical treatment, autobiographic call musical treatment of the acrimonious divorce he was going through with his wife. and the critics absolutely panned it. and i loved it. and i wrote a letter to "the new york times" praising and arguing with the critics attacking him hoping he would read the letter in the times. he did and he called me. and we got together, and we began working on his book.
now, at the time he was not in great shape, and he went to hawaii and england and wound up in belgium. he wound up in europe, in belgium. and i went to belgium to continue to work on his autobiography. and that's where we wrote "sexual healing" together, the song, which was my way of trying to help him understand just what he was going through. so anyway, we wrote the song together. it was a big hit he came back to the united states. but most tragically, he was murdered by his dad in 1984 before he and i had a chance to complete his autobiography. so i took, i took a year in 1985
and wrote a book called "divided soul" which was my biography of him. and that's again, unusual for me because it was not a ghost written book. had i -- given a choice, i would have much preferred to have done his autobiography, but i couldn't. he wasn't there to approve it he was gone. though the book "divided soul" was, you know, full of marvin's voice and quotes and our conversations we had over the years. but he's an artist, i mean, there isn't any artist who i really love anymore. he was very aristocratic and sweet and gentle and troubled. but charismatic in a very unusual way, very -- he was like a prince, he was princely. he had an elevated consciousness
but also had a wicked drug problem. >> host: and, in fact, when you wrote that song, you were pretty, pretty well gone on cocaine too, weren't you? >> guest: well, we were high, i mean almost all the time that i worked with marvin, i don't think i was ever with him when we weren't high together. i mean, his main thing was pot and at the time i was a heavy pot smoker, and he always had cocaine. so i don't -- yeah. i mean, the answer is yes. [laughter] >> host: have you made a lot of money off that song? >> guest: yeah yeah. >> host: do you still make money today off that songsome. >> guest: yeah, yeah. no, i mean, it's been an incredible international hit. helped put my kid through college, and it's been, it's been sort of amazing how popular that song has been over the years. and it's one of the proudest accomplishments for me, because
you know the idea that i would get to work with marvin gaye and that i could help him put into a song what was going through his mind, and he liked tavis. he was also a wonderful collaborator in that he appreciated, he appreciated me, and i think -- when he saw literary talent because he was a very kind of literary person himself, you you know, he read he knew bible and the quran and so forth, he was encouraging and full of praise for others. >> host: seems like you've worked with a lot of african-american artists. >> guest: yeah. >> host: ghost writing. >> guest: uh-huh, i have. >> host: why? >> guest: i just love african-american culture, and i love the music and it's always kind of drawn me, and it's what i listen to all day long. it's what i listened to when i was 8 9 years old.
and part of what has given me my motivation is that i'm drawn to the music but then i'm drawn to the musicians so i can try to understand what drived them -- drives them. what in their past or what in their head or what in their heart enables them to create this amazing music. so, you know, i kind of -- my life i kind of moved to the grooves of african-american music, to jazz and gospel and r&b. >> host: what's your background? >> guest: i'm jewish. i was i was born jewish in new york in 1943. i'm 71 years old.
i became a christian in 2005 maybe nine or ten years ago. and it's interesting too because you asked me about african-american music. i was also, i've also always been drawn to the african-american church. and when i was a little boy, i remember going to african-american churches and everybody seemed to not just be having a good time, but something was happening in there that seemed important and rich and warm and loving and encouraging. but i, you know, i always had my nose pressed against a glass. and when i got to be an old man, i'm 60 or something years old i kind of made up my mind, i think i'll go in that church. so i'm in that church. and am getting the kind of nurturing that i've always, always wanted to have. and it's because of the music
drew me into the church. it wasn't the theology, though, i mean, that's a whole other subject. but it's the it's the love and the positive energy and the acceptance of others that i hear in the music. you know, the glow, the excitement, the kind of nurturing that i hear in the music that i think is holy. and, you know, interesting one thing about aretha is in this book i wrote "respect," one of the reasons she's as great as she is, because her -- she had a father who was a well known preacher in the african-american community. his name is reverend c.l. franklin. and one of the things he taught her is that it's all god; jazz,
r&b. i mean, in other words he kind of went against the tradition of the times and said you can't sing pop if you sing gospel. and one of the reasons she is such a great singer, she has no conflicts about that. and that's what i believe. i believe you can listen to lightning hopkins and muddy waters and b.b. king and be as prayerful as listening to mahalia jackson or a clara ward. >> host: nondisclosure agreements, are there things that you would like to have put in the willie nelson book, but you have signed a legal agreement saying no, i can't put that in here, and you can't talk about it? >> guest: no. i mean, i didn't have any nondisclosure -- no, i didn't have any nondisclosure
agreement. as i told you before, they have editorial control, so they can cut out what they want to cut out. now, maybe that equals nondisclosure, but, in other words, i didn't sign a piece of paper that now says i cannot tell the world what he told me not to tell. in the case of willie nelson he sort of basically did tell everything. but he's a generous guy and he's a gentle man, and he didn't he didn't throw anyone under the bus gratuitously. but, yeah that whole issue of nondisclosure and censorship has never been an impediment to my work other than in the case of aretha where i did kind of feel as though i wanted to tell more, there was more to the story.
>> host: has your stutter been an impediment? in your lifetime? >> guest: you know, it's interesting that you that you mention that. the music critic, robert krisgaw, did a review of the aretha book, and in it, he did an overview of my career. it was a very general warehouse article -- generous article, and i appreciated it very much. but in it he said he thought that my stutter helped me gain the sympathy and empathy of people i talk to. and because as a stutterer, i appear to be more empathetic than -- or vulnerable than perhaps i am though i do think i'm pretty everyone empathetic and vulnerable. that in his view my speech
impediment has helped me as a ghost writer. and igy he might be wright -- i think he might be right. i know that i've struggled with it my whole life, and, you know, someone asked me the other day if you took a pill and it would make your stutter go away, would you? i probably would, you know? i still think i fantasize about complete fluency but it's me. and i think the great thing about being a stutterer is that you do have to overcome it. i mean you do have to kind of, you know, agree to have an interview with you on national tv and say well, what the hell i'm going to stutter but -- it don't look too good or sound too good, but it's me. and there's that that it is an
emotional obstacle you have to come, and the other good thing about it is that it is an honest representation of my mood at any given time. in other words with you in this interview i have stuttered much less than i normally do because you have made me comfortable just your kind of vibe has. another interviewer had, you know maybe was a bit harsher or impatient or was worried about -- i mean, i kind of knew you were comfortable with my stutter. so i have stuttered but it hasn't been kind of crazy. were you a different person who i'm kind of feeling nervous this guy's interviewing me, i would stutter much more. and that would be honest.
does that make any sense to you? >> host: sure. >> guest: so in that regard, it's a good barometer of what's going on with me from an emotional point of view. >> host: david ritz, if a politician approached you to write a policy book or a history book a would you take the assignment and b, what would go into that? >> guest: well, you know, it's interesting that you that you mention that. one of my fantasies as a ghost writer is to be a political ghost writer. i would love to write presidential speeches. i think it'd be a kick in the head. and i think i've got the chops to do it, you know? i think i could get obama's
rhythms down and do it. but, you know, no one's ever offered me the gig. but the answer to your question, if i liked the -- i mean, i wouldn't do can it with a politician who i didn't think was up to good or whose politics were way off mine. but if i felt comfortable with the politician's point of view and i felt he was up to good, i would positively do it. i mean, you know, one analogy about a ghost writer, i guess is kind of like you're kind of like an attorney in court that you're arguing for your client. and what you're arguing for the client is, is two words is basically believe me. and i'll do it if i believe the person. in other words, i've worked with
musical stars where we haven't, where i haven't quite believed them and it didn't work out. so yeah. i mean, the idea of doing a book with a politician would be great. and i've done books i did -- i've done books with sports stars, gary sheffield was, is -- was a baseball player. laila ali, muhammad ali's daughter, a boxer. i've done a lot of different kinds of books, and i would love to do a book with a politician. >> host: does your name get out there once you've got a name on a book? does somebody see it? how does it snowball into another book or another contract? >> guest: well, i'm still hustling, and i believe in the hustle. you know, i'll tell you a quick story. when i did my first book, the
ray charles book, i thought it was all over. i thought the next day i'd get a call from paul mccartney, mick jagger, eric clapton and i'd just have gigs for the rest of my life because, you know, ray charles is such a megastar. nobody called. nobody called. and one of the things i learned is that i can't count on the books that i've done to generate more work for me that i have to continue to go out and -- now i have an agent who i love, and he's also very proactive and his name is david zigliano. but i, i don't take anything for, anything for granted. but i also have to say and maybe this is what's kept me as
a ghost writer who's always been able to work, i like the hustle. i mean, i like cold calls and i think it's good to hustle. i think it's good for us to look for work and expose oust ourselves and be -- ourselves and, you know, in other words, to kind of risk rejection, i think, is good for the soul. because to be too protective, to say, well i'm not going to talk to this person because they may reject me, i mean that isn't me. i mean it's okay to be rejected. but i try to tell people when i meet them the truth and if i want to do your book, i'll just look you in the eye and tell you i really, really want to do your book. so i try not to be kind of too proud. >> host: what are you working on right now? >> guest: well, we have a contract -- i have a contract
with tavis. this is our see, one two three, fourth book together. and we're working on a book about the last 16 weeks in the life of michael jackson. so it's sort of a condensed michael jackson book. that's my current -- >> host: and after that? >> guest: well, after that i'm chasing people, you know? i want to do a book with merle haggard, who i love. i want to do a book with the rock star lenny california visits to who -- kravitz, who i think is great and i've been talking to him. there's all kinds of books i want to do. and then i'm also working on a novel about my childhood and
i'm doing a graphic book with an artist about the history of my relationship to clothes, which is an interesting book because i'm kind of a clothes nut. so i want to do this graphic book. so i'm always working on four or five six things at the same time. >> host: are you writing any songs? >> guest: i am. i've recently written some gospel songs with a good pal of mine. i wrote a couple of r&b songs a couple of months ago, and i almost would rather write a song than anything else. i mean, i really kind of love it all. i love ghosting i like writing songs, i'm enjoying this graphic book that i'm doing i'm enjoying toying with this novel. ..